Study Guide

Le Morte D'Arthur Rules and Order

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Rules and Order

Thenne they avysed the Kynge to send for the duke and his wyf by a grete charge: "And yf he wille not come at your somons, thenne may ye do your best; thenne have ye cause to make myghty were uppon hym." (3.23-26)

The conflict between Uther and Gorlois raises an important question: if the king has absolute power, does that give him the right to do something that goes against the laws of God, like, say, taking another man's wife? Uther's noblemen seem to think so, but as we'll see later in the story with Arthur, a good king probably shouldn't hold himself above the law.

But there, afore hem alle, ther myghte none take it out but Arthur – wherfor ther were many lordes wroth, and saide it was grete shame unto them alle and the reame to be over-governyd with a boye of no hyghe blood borne. (10.14-17)

All these fancy pants noblemen have a hard time swallowing the idea that a nobody like Arthur could be there king. But we know that Arthur is not a nobody at all, he's the dead king's son. So while <em>Le</em> <em>Morte </em>might seem to be suggesting that noble birth isn't what is important to being a king here, in fact, strangely enough, it's confirming the noblemen's belief.

Than the Kynge and the Quene were gretely displeased with Sir Gawain for the sleynge of the lady; and there by ordynaunce of the Queene there was sette a queste of ladyes uppon Sir Gawain, and they juged hym for ever whyle he lyved to be with all ladyes and to fyght for hir quarels, and ever that he sholde be curteyse and never to refuse mercy to hym that askith mercy. (70.1-6)

Finally, the ladies are in charge. Their punishment for Gawain? Why it's lady-centered of course. He has to provide help to women from this moment on. That seems appropriate, given his crimes, but it also tells us something about how these people viewed justice as a whole. According to Gwenyvere, it should be remunerative, or undo the harm that was donw, rather than just a punishment. This form of justice gives Gawain a chance to make up for his mistake.

Than the Kynge stablysshed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys – and charged them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forfiture of their worship and lordship of Kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour], strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongful quarell, for no love ne for no worldis goodis. (77.26-34)

There it is folks, in all its glory: the oath that all the Knights of the Round Table must take before they get to join the club. Along with a bit that forbids knights from committing crime or aiding and abetting in crime, the oath has a special section devoted entirely to a knight's treatment of ladies. What's up with that? Can you imagine if the president's oath of office required him to hold open doors and lay his coat down over puddles? Of course it's possible that "ladies" are a just stand-in for society's powerless members in general.

Oh, and also of note is the part of the oath that requires knights to give mercy when asked hints at a more Christian moral code taking hold, instead of one based on a warrior ethic, where knights would take no prisoners.

But finally thes two brethirne wolde nat be entreted, and answerde that they wolde kepe that they had.

"Well," seyde Sir Uwayne, "Then woll I fyght with one of you, and preve that ye do this lady wronge."

"That woll we nat," seyde they, "for and we do batayle, we two woll fyght bothe at onys with one knyght; and therefore, yf ye lyste to fyght so, we woll be redy at what oure ye woll assygne:
"And if ye wynne us in batayle, she to have hir londis agayne."

"Ye sey well," seyde Sir Uwayne, "Therefore make you redy, and that ye be here tomorne in the defence of this ladyes ryght." (110.20-29)

One of the ways of determining the outcome of land disputes in <em>Le</em> <em>Morte </em>is for the two parties in question to engage in trial by combat. In other words, fight it out until you arrive at a solution. Of course if one of the people in the dispute is a woman, well that presents a bit of a problem. She would have to find a champion to fight for her. So, very soon after taking the oath of the Round Table, Uwayne fulfills it by fighting for a lady in a righteous quarrel.

But sone after, on a Saturday, sought unto Kynge Arthure all the senatoures that were on lyve, and of the cunnyngyst Cardynallis that dwelled in the courte, and prayde hym of pece and profird hym full large; and besought hym as a soverayne, most governoure undir God, for to gyff them lycence for syx wekys large, that they myght be assembled all, and than in the cité of Syon (that is Rome callyd) to crowne hym there kyndly with crysemed hondys, with septure, forsothe, as an emperoure sholde.

"I assente me," seyde the Kynge, "as ye have devysed, and comly be Crystmas to be crowned – hereafter to reigne in my asstate and to kepe my Rounde Table with the rentys of Rome to rule as me lykys." (149.22-33)

Wait a minute. Arthur just became the Emperor of <em>Rome</em>? In a matter of seconds? Gee, that was easy. It's a lofty title, to be sure, but the really awesome thing about it is that it entitles Arthur to the "rentys of Rome" – homage paid to him in the form of gold, commodities, and, should he so choose, able-bodied men. Can you say <em>ca-ching</em>?<em> </em>In theory the Romans give Arthur all these goodies because he showed them mercy in their defeat, but it also comes with a price. He'll have to protect them in the future, too.

"And for this cause I come hydir, to pray you and requyre you to gyff me three gyftys – and they shall nat be unresenablé asked, but that ye may worshypfully graunte hem me, and to you no grete hurte nother losse." (178.18-21)

Gareth asks Arthur to grant him three gifts, or "boons." At first, this might seem a little presumptuous. Who's this guy asking the most powerful person around to give him stuff? But it's actually a privilege of a vassal before his lord. If Arthur refused, it would be downright unkingly, particularly because Gareth has phrased his request <em>very </em>carefully. He has asked Arthur to grant his requests only if they're not unreasonable and can be granted honorably, which gives Arthur an out if he needs it.

"What sey ye, my lady?" seyde the kynge.

"Hit is as he seyth, So God me helpe—to sey the soth," seyde the quene, "I promysed hym his askynge for love and joy I had to se her."

"Well, madame," seyde the kynge, "and yf [ye] were hasty to graunte what boone he wolde aske, I wolde well that [ye] perfourmed [your] promyse." (263.8-14)

Mark, who is just following the rules of feudal society, requires Isode to keep her word. Oh, but there's just one teeny tiny problem: Isode has promised to grant Palomides whatever he asks, and what he asks for is Isode. Oops. This situation shows just how much this society depends on honorable behavior. If Palomides were behaving honorably here, he would never have asked a married woman to leave her husband for him, and such a tricky moral dilemma would never happen in the first place.

"She which rode uppon the lyon, hit betokenyth the New Law of Holy Chirche, that is to undirstonde fayth, good hope, belyeve, and baptyme; for she semed yonger than that othir hit ys grete reson, for she was borne in the Resureccion and the Passion of Oure Lorde Jesu Cryste […] And she that rode on the serpente signifieth the Olde Law, and that serpente betokenyth a fynde." (528.8-12, 17-19)

During the Grail Quest, Percyvale sees a vision of a woman riding on a lion and another upon a serpent. The priest that interprets it tells him that the women represent the Old and New Laws. Okay, so what's the old and what's the new? Well in the Christian tradition, the "New Law" was that of Christ, which took the place of the old-school, eye-for-an-eye type of justice of the Old Testament. So now, over in Camelot, the oath of the Round Table has done the same thing by prioritizing Christian mercy and charity over a vengeance-driven warrior ethic. Or at least, most of the time.

"Well I am sure there hath one of hir hurte knyghtes layne with her thys nyght; and that woll I prove with myne hondys, that she ys a traytroures unto my lorde Kynge Arthur." "Beware what ye do," seyde Sir Launcelot, "for and ye sey so and wyll preve hit, hit woll be takyn at youre handys." "My lorde, Sir Launcelot," seyde Sir Mellyagaunce, "I rede you beware what ye do; for thoughe ye ar never so good a knyght – as I wote well ye are renowmed the beste kynght of the worlde – yet shulde ye be avysed to do batayle in a wrong quarell, for God woll have a stroke in every batayle."

"As for that," seyde Sir Launcelot, "God ys to be drad. But as to that I say nay, playnly, that thys nyght there lay none of thes ten knyghtes wounded with my lady, Quene Gwenyver; and that woll I prove with myne hondys, that ye say untrwely in that." (634.21-33)

Hmm, we thought knights of the Round Table are not supposed to engage in a "wrongful quarell" – in other words, they're supposed to be on the side of truth and right. So then what exactly does our Launcelot think he's doing? Well it turns out he's a pretty smart dude, and he manages to get around any potential moral snag by swearing an "equivocal oath" – one that's technically true, but not true in spirit. Gwenyvere <em>has </em>spent the night with someone other than her husband – Launcelot. But all Launcelot claims is that none of "thes ten knyghtes wounded" spent the night with Gwenyvere. Sneaky sneaky.

"For Sir Launcelot ys an hardy knyght, and all ye know that he ys the beste knyght among us all; and but if he be takyn with the ded he woll fyght with hym that bryngith up the noyse, and I know no knyght that ys able to macch hym. Therefore, and hit be sothe as ye say, I wolde that he were takyn with the dede." (647.36-40)

Finally Arthur arrives at the conclusion that's been bothering Shmoop for quite a while. In trial by combat, the stronger knight will always win regardless of who's in the right. So how exactly is that fair? Although this problem might seem obvious to us, a lot of people at this time believed that God would lend his hand to the champion on the side of right, no matter what his prior abilities were. In any case, a trial-by-combat is unnecessary if the guilt of a person is proven beyond a doubt, which is why Arthur insists that Gwenyvere and Launcelot be caught in the act.

So than there was made grete ordynaunce in thys ire, and the Quene must nedis be jouged to the deth; and the law was such in tho dayes that whatsomever they were, of what astate or degré, if they were founden gylty of treson there shuld be none other remedy but deth, and othir the menour other the takynge wyth the dede shulde be cause of their hasty jougement. (654.45-655.4)

Even though Gwenyvere's the queen, she is not above the law. Unlike in our legal system, in which someone is innocent until proven guilty, a sworn witness (the "menour") or being caught in the act are enough to condemn someone to death without a real trial, which means our Gwen is headed for the stake. Yikes. Unless something happens to intervene…

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